I have been pursuing this profession—writer and sometimes editor—for almost sixty years now. I first got the inkling1 when I was about twelve years old and attempted my first novel.
That was a fragment, not even a complete story, about a steam locomotive and passenger cars in the Old West that pull into the station with everyone on board dead. It was a fine setup for a mystery, except that I didn’t understand at the time that first you have to know what happened, then you wind it back to what the reader—and presumably the detective, of which I had none—first learns. So I had a setup with no premise.2 But it was a start. I wrote out what I had on an old Royal portable typewriter that was in the family, created a cardboard-and-crayon cover, and stitched it together with yarn. It was a rude start, but I was on my way.
What drew me to writing, when I knew nothing about it, was that a writer—specifically a fiction writer, specifically a novelist—could apparently work for himself from home, rather than for somebody else in an office, and could count his time as his own, rather than keeping to somebody else’s schedule. Well, it was a dream. But it fit my bookish and solitary nature. Besides, it was clean, literary, intellectual work, and you didn’t have to hurt anybody.3
My second novel, written at age sixteen, was a much grander affair: with a first draft in fountain pen on white, lined tablets; second draft typed double spaced, with margins, two copies using carbon paper on my grandfather’s upright Underwood, just like the publishers wanted; and running 472 pages, or about 60,000 words, all told. It was a dreadful space opera about a renegade university professor and rebel leader against an interstellar empire, with a romantic subplot. It had a beginning, middle, and ending—and I knew even as I finished it that the damn thing was unpublishable.4 But the effort was what counted, and it got me fixed on my present course.
My novel career paused when I went to college and studied English literature. I had no ideas for another book—having been emotionally drained by the space opera—and was too busy anyway with my studies and the mountains of reading they required. But that reading gave me perspective on literature and the language. And all along I had thought that, when I graduated, I would immediately write another novel and make my name with my first published book. I had dreamed that I would support myself with fiction writing.
But about three months before graduation I took mental stock and realized I still had no usable ideas, nothing to say. This is not surprising, because few people in their early twenties have much to say to the adult world—which was my preferred venue—and the market for Young Adult literature is limited. So I was suddenly faced with the realization that I needed a “day job” to support my imminent debut into the real world.5 And what I was best qualified for was work as an editor. Through the graces of one of my professors, I got a junior position at the Pennsylvania State University Press. It was eight hours a day on my butt with a blue pencil, correcting spelling and grammar, untangling sentence structure, and marking copy for typesetting, all according to the Chicago Manual. But I loved it. After the university press, I went to a tradebook publisher—where I learned about that railroad tragedy, and much else about the West and my newly adopted state of California—and from there to technical editing of engineering and construction reports and proposals.
My third unpublishable novel came about in my late twenties, while I was working for the engineering company. Based on the time-honored mantra of “write what you know,”6 I tried to write a business novel based on the scramble of a second-tier construction company to answer a request for proposal from a major client for a mega-million-dollar mining development for a Third World client.7 That book progressed as far as a rough first draft, although I never sought a publisher.
In the meantime, I went from engineering and construction, to a public utility providing electricity and gas, to an international pharmaceutical company, to a pioneering maker of genetic analysis instruments, with stop-offs working as a temp in administration at two local oil refineries. In each case, I worked first as a technical writer—learning the secrets of the company’s respective industry—and then moved into internal communications—explaining the company’s business to its employees. And in every case, I was building myself an understanding of and intimacy with the business world and its technological basis, an understanding that I have been mining ever since as background for most of my novels.
So … what is the writer’s job in all of this? It is the same, pretty much, whether the task is editing another writer’s work, or creating and editing technical documents, writing newsletter articles and press releases, or writing a full-blown novel, whether a historical fiction or far-future adventure.
First—and especially in fiction—take the reader somewhere new, show the reader the unique side of an everyday life situation, or of a product or technology, something that he or she has never considered before. There are two ways to approach a story: you can come at the topic head-on and flat out, or from an oblique angle and on the bounce. Think of the latter as putting “English” on the ball, making it spin. That slightly-to-one-side approach puts the reader’s natural defenses off guard and simultaneously raises his or her curiosity. This also works for a new product description or policy analysis—although not in a tightly prescribed document format like a pharmaceutical batch record.
Second—especially in technical writing, communications, and non-fiction editing—make the obscure explicit and the confusing understandable. It is an article of faith with me that nothing is so complex that it cannot be made intelligible to a bright ten-year-old child. But you have to use simple words, work in everyday analogies, and take some extra steps and make some supporting linkages in your reasoning. And you have to use that bounce thing described above to make the reader care in the first place.
Third—and this applies to all writing and editing—be rigorous in your logic and sequence, and honest in your evidence and conclusions. You are invading the reader’s mind, and this is hollowed ground. You can play with the reader’s perceptions and trick his or her understanding in the same way that a magician’s sleight of hand arouses an audience’s awe and wonder. But you can’t lie to the reader or offend his or her senses of fairness, right and wrong, or proportion. And you can never disrespect the reader. For you are playing in another person’s sandbox and, if you offend, will be asked to go home with a slamming of the book.
Fourth—and this applies to almost all types of writing, except perhaps for instruction manuals—paint pictures and tell stories. The human mind is not exactly immune to bare facts, but we have a hard time understanding them and fixing them in memory without a context. This is why storytelling and visual representation have been so powerful in almost all human cultures. This is why religious groups and political parties create a “narrative” to support their core truths. Your job is to create in the reader’s mind a structure made of words, mental images, and associations that carries your message.
To be a writer is to be, effectively, inside somebody’s head by invitation. Play nice. And have fun.
1. What a writerly word! You can almost smell the printer’s ink and hear the presses hum.
2. Curiously, I was foreshadowing one of the tragedies of early railroading, when the trains of the Central Pacific Railroad had to navigate miles of mountain tunnels and snow sheds in the Sierra Nevada, and the accumulated coal smoke asphyxiated their engine crews. From this was born the generation of oil-fired, cab-forward steam engine designs, which worked that route for years.
3. Except, of course, your characters—which I also didn’t understand at the time. But they are only made of smoke and dreams.
4. Anytime you hear about anyone writing a brilliant first novel, count on it being their second or third completed manuscript. Even Harper Lee had to go through this process.
5. Back in my teens, when I was working on the space opera, I wrote to one of my favorite authors, Ray Bradbury, asking if he would read my novel. He politely declined, which was a blessing. But he then suggested that, to become a fiction writer, I should not go to college and instead get a menial job as a dishwasher and just write, write, write, and submit everything to publishers. That course for me, as a teenager, would have been a disaster. Given my subsequent history of real-world, practical experience, I don’t think it would have worked out any better for me as a college graduate.
6. Which is a trap. The command should be “write what excites you, that you know a little something about, but you want to know much, much more.” If your current life is dull—that future as a dishwasher toward which I had been urged—it shouldn’t limit your scope and imagination. And these days, with all of the online resources available, research is easy, right down to getting street views of any city and most towns around the globe.
7. Well, not every idea is a good one. However, some of that story—and so much more—found its way into Medea’s Daughter forty-odd years later.